The Red Red Rose
You spend most of your time alone. This is okay. When you see the others in your village, they do not understand you anyway. You are the dirt girl. The animal girl. You spend most of your time watching a spider spin a web, or describing in long phrases the bend of wheat in the wind. You do not speak in ways they understand. They do not speak in ways you understand.
You have two older sisters. They have failed to teach you the proper ways to behave. They can cook and clean, so you have never needed to. You have never done this well anyway. You are separate. Different. But everyone goes when the carnival visits, even you.
It is, of course, best to go at night. You run through the tent of mirrors three times more often than your sisters. You love to see how things are distorted, changed by metal buffed so bright it weirdly reflects noses, mouths. The lanterns cast strange shadows and you feel as though you can see through them into another world, a hidden place behind the one we live in.
But by far your favorite is the fortune teller’s tent.
The woman who gives others their futures is very thin and wrinkled. She is Gypsy, like the others, but she is so old she could be your grandmother, but she isn’t.
She crouches over the cards and casts her watery eyes at you, past you. You sit at the cloth-draped stump and wait for her questions. The backs of your hands tingle, so you fidget. Her tent smells like melted wax and dried roses.
“Draw a card, little spider,” she says to you. You don’t know how she knows Father’s nickname for you. The backs of the cards are blank, the edges grey and tattered from use. Anything could be on the other side.
You turn a card over. Colors flash livid against the black cloth.
“The Devil. Another.”
You draw again.
“The Fool. Another.”
You turn over one last card.
The pictures are strange. The first is a bestial man with goat legs and a triangle with horns branching from his forehead. The second is a boy dancing toward a cliff’s edge. The third is a tall tower hit by a bolt of lightning, people endlessly falling, screaming, from its heights.
“Beware gifts,” she says cryptically. “Avoid stairs.”
You nod, as though this is wise. You see the fire-eaters next. By the time you see the sword swallower, you have forgotten all about your fortune. You follow your sisters home, laughing, and are so tired you go straight to bed.
You wake up thinking about the bestial man, the one with the steer horns and the goat legs. You wonder how he came to be. Was his mother the steer? His father the goat? You wonder if he could be real.
The carnival is leaving in the morning, but you don’t want it to. You visit the tent of the fortune teller, but she is already gone. You wander past people folding tents, pulling up pegs.
A woman wearing a colorful shawl stops you. “What are you looking for, little spider?”
You squint. She is not the fortune teller, but she could be her daughter.
“I want to ask about the goat man.”
You do not expect the woman to know what you’re talking about, but she nods. Her eyes are as green as a pond snake.
“Take this,” she gives you a red rose. “It will help you find what you need.”
You cradle the flower. You have already forgotten what the fortune teller said about gifts.
You take it home. You dump out your sister’s daisies and put your rose in the vase instead. You put the vase on the windowsill on your side of the shared bedroom. It seems to drink the sun. You stare at it for a long time, the delicate spiral of petals. You imagine they are a stair leading down into a secret place, like the hall of mirrors.
That night you dream again about the goat-legged man. He walks down a path choked with roses. He twirls his beard and watches you. His eyes glint in the firelight. You are dancing, dancing, thorns catching at your skirt.
“New child. What will it do?” His voice is thick liquid, like mud.
“What won’t it do?” You answer.
When you wake, you dance through the house. You are underfoot all day. Your sisters tell you to go to town to play.
Geoffrey is in the square. So is Robert, the baker’s son, and Alice. “Icky Isabelle. Icky Icky Isabelle,” Robert says. You ignore him and play by yourself, as usual, until he throws a chestnut at you. It stings. You spend your time gathering more chestnuts. You throw them at Robert. He chases you.
You make it home safe, heart pounding, and you go to the window and stare at the red red rose and think about how much you hate Robert.
That night you dream you’re at a huge white banquet table with the goat-legged man. “What does it see?” His tongue is red with wine. He pours purple wine into a goblet for you.
“What won’t it see?” You are drinking, laughing, spilling your wine across the white cloth.
The next day you open every door in the house. Your sisters yell that you are a nuisance. You go to town and see a pie cooling in the baker’s windowsill. You steal it. Before you do, you see inside, the baker’s wife and the parson. They are wrestling, faces pressed close together. It is a strange thing to see. You take the pie anyway.
You find the baker. You tell him the parson was stuck to his wife. Your face and hands are stained with blackberries but he doesn’t say anything about the missing pie.
That night you dream of the goat-legged man again. He is at the top of a tower, humming down a song with no words. You climb the spiral and you can feel the song marching with you.
“What does it hear?” he says, as you reach the top.
“What won’t it hear,” you answer. He takes your arm and spins you, and you twirl over the top step. Then you are rolling, rolling down, like a marble in a chute.
You wake in the middle of the night and toss and turn. Your sister, the one that shares the room with you, is asleep. You creep out of the house, careful and quiet. You go to the baker’s window—maybe they are still stuck together.
You hear a wet sound. Chunk. Chunk. All of the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Chunk. Chunk.
You go home and climb in your bed. This is the first time since you got the rose that you hope you don’t dream of the goat-legged man. You dream of mirrors, noses and mouths, instead.
The next day there is an upset. Everyone is talking, buzzing like angry bees. The baker is gone. His wife is dead. The parson is dead. The baker’s son Robert is dead.
You wonder about the sound. Chunk. Chunk. You wonder. Like a chestnut falling.
Today is the first day the rose has lost a petal. It is curled on the windowsill, cupping the sun’s light. You put the petal to your lips. It is soft and you slip it between your teeth. It does not taste like much of anything and it is gone before you can chew it.
That night you dream of the goat-legged man again. He is in a churchyard, weaving among the graves. There is a great shadow behind him that follows.
“What does it say?” he asks. You run away from him, darting between headstones. You can feel the grave dirt tremble where his hooves strike. He is hunting you, snuffling somewhere behind the stones.
“It won’t say,” you whisper. “It won’t. Never, not ever.”
The shadow comes closer until it is over you. You feel the goat man’s hand on your shoulder. “There are many petals.”
You wake, tangled in sweaty sheets. It is still dark. Though your hands shake, you take the rose from the vase on the sill and go, careful and quiet. The town is silent, and the silence feels like tears. You go all the way to the carnival grounds. The moon casts shadows where the fortune teller’s tent used to be.
She is standing there, swaying in her shawls. You kneel before her. She points at the ground. She is young and old at the same time.
You sink your fingernails into the dirt, crushing earth over the rose, sealing it in the ground.
“What will it do? Little spider,” she pats you on the head. Her fingers are in your hair. “Remember.”
Then she is gone.
You go home, but you do not sleep. The next day you wash your hands, again and again. You are everywhere underfoot. Your sisters send you to town.
Geoffrey and Alice are in the churchyard. They are quiet. You sit by them. They are too sad to throw chestnuts. You ask them what they liked best at the carnival. They both have something to say to you. For the first time, you understand them. They seem to understand you. You watch your reflection in Alice’s eyes, twisting, turning, as if you are in another world.
Karen Bovenmyer holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University.